Sixteen years ago, Kenny Glasgow’s mother had to pawn her car to keep her son, who had recently been released from prison, from going back to jail for unpaid court-ordered fines.
No one else wanted to help, because they all believed Glasgow — who had been in and out of prison on drug charges and finally a robbery charge — would soon find himself back behind bars.
Last month, Glasgow, 52, saw the Alabama Legislature pass a law supporting a cause he had spent those last 16 years championing. The new law restored voting rights to many former felons and allowed incarcerated men and women with the exception of those convicted of a specific list of serious crimes the ability to vote.
The man who no one except his mother believed in played a significant part in changing the law and extended voting rights to many Alabamians.
Glasgow, the half-brother of civil rights activist Al Sharpton, minces no words about his past and how he overcame it. Glasgow said he fell into drug addiction because of despair about his circumstances and quickly turned to crime to feed his drug habit. He did time for drug offenses, was released and later was sent to prison in Florida for robbery.
While in prison, Glasgow turned to religion and converted to Islam for a time. Glasgow was a leader among his fellow prisoners and had success in getting disparate ethnic and religious groups to get along. Glasgow said he was a little too successful for the comfort of prison administrators. Convinced he was planning a revolt, Glasgow said they tossed him into solitary confinement.
“They threw me in there with nothing but a Bible,” he said. “The first time, I read it for four months. Then I read it a second time for two months. The third time … I’ve been reading it ever since.”
Upon release, Glasgow brought The Ordinary People Society, a ministry he founded in prison, out into the world. Glasgow admits that staying on the straight and narrow isn’t easy, and that a lapse in discipline could easily send him spiraling back to where he was. Glasgow said the closest he’s come to falling back into old habits came when he was subjected to personal attacks online a few years ago.
“You’ve got to have a support group,” he said. “You’ve got to have people holding you up.”
Shortly after being released from prison, Glasgow attempted to register to vote and was denied. He then went through a lengthy process to have his voting rights restored. When he finally got his rights restored, Glasgow wore the document restoring his rights around his neck for a time.
“People thought I was crazy,” he said. “…But having voting rights helps change people’s mentality. If they’re treated like citizens, they’ll begin acting like citizens.”
Glasgow’s struggle inspired him to seek voting rights for former felons. A debate with former Alabama Attorney General Troy King planted the seed that expanded his crusade to obtaining voting rights for men and women in prison as well.
“He said, ‘I guess you’ll want to talk about moral turpitude, next,’” Glasgow said. “I didn’t know what he was talking about.”
Glasgow and some other advocates researched the matter and found that language barring voting for felons convicted of crimes involving moral turpitude was the primary obstacle to felons' voting rights. There was no legal definition of the term, and many decision makers had taken a broad approach to interpreting the language.
About a decade ago, Glasgow sued the state to allow him to register inmates to vote. Glasgow settled the suit, and was allowed access to inmates in Alabama prisons to register them to vote. The language concerning moral turpitude remained unclear, and Glasgow said he faced many hurdles in the task of registering inmates to vote. Glasgow did single out the City of Dothan for praise, saying that in the time since the lawsuit, the city had done well in complying with the settlement.
“Dothan is the model city for allowing inmates access to the ballot,” he said.
On May 17, the Alabama Legislature passed a law that restoring the rights of many former and currently serving felons to vote. The law more narrowly defines a provision barring prisoners convicted of offenses involving “moral turpitude” from voting. In the past, governors and attorney generals had classified hundreds of crimes as involving moral turpitude. The new law applies the term to just around 50 of the most serious offenses.
The legislation was the product of bi-partisan research and debate that also involved other advocacy groups. Some legislators who voted for the bill said they favored adding specificity to crimes involving moral turpitude instead of leaving the matter to boards of registrars and judges who may define the term differently. Some legislators believe the bill will keep some felons off voter rolls who may have otherwise received voting rights due to a lenient interpretation of moral turpitude.
Glasgow praised Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill for shepherding the process.
“He did it because it was the right thing to do,” he said.
The legislation could have an impact on races around the state. Former felons live all over the state and under the new law currently incarcerated inmates’ votes will be counted in their counties of residence, not in the county where they are locked up.
It’s hard to tell how many people will end up voting because of the new law. Glasgow said inmate voting could have a big impact in two upcoming municipal races.
“I can see it having a big impact in District 1 and District 2,” he said. “It’s the unseen giant.”